Background.

David Copperfield
  • The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London” is a quotation from David Copperfield (Chapter 47).
  • David Copperfield was the eighth novel by Charles Dickens, first published between May 1849 and November 1850. The novel, written in the first person, revolves around the character after which the work is named. It follows his life until middle age, with his own adventures and the numerous friends and enemies he meets along his way.

Context.

Description of the Millbank area of London as observed by David Copperfield.

Image of Millbank, from around 1800.

Location Profile: Millbank.

In his novel David Copperfield, Charles Dickens describes the area of Millbank, near London’s Westminster. Millbank was a marshy bleak area straddling the Thames between Vauxhall Bridge and Horseferry, dominated by the octogan-shaped Millbank Prison (also referred to as Millbank Penitentiary), then the largest prison in Europe. The prison also served as the main departure point for convicts being transported to Australia, with a wharf directly outside. The prison, which had been built between 1812 and 1821, was demolished in 1890. The land, some eighteen acres, was later occupied by the Tate Gallery and an army medical college.


Modern view of the Thames foreshore at Millbank. The marshy area described by Dickens was lost with the building of the embankment wall. Photographed 2019.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Chapter 47 (Martha) of David Copperfield:

All the way here, I had supposed that she was going to some house; indeed, I had vaguely entertained the hope that the house might be in some way associated with the lost girl. But that one dark glimpse of the river, through the gateway, had instinctively prepared me for her going no farther.

The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London. There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the great blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another, the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which—having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather—they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to have proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked as if it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, out of the overflowings of the polluted stream.

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The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London.
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